Using Blue LED Light to Make Organic Molecules

We interview Jefferson researcher on how he is synthesizing molecules that could help treat diseases like cancer, with the help of a little blue light.
John Milligan
John Milligan, PhD, assistant professor in Chemical and Biological Sciences at Jefferson’s College of Life Sciences.

Proteins, fats, carbohydrates and the very building blocks of all living things – DNA – are all organic molecules. These molecules occur naturally all around us – in the atmosphere, the soil, and the plants and animals we consume. For years, chemists have tried to replicate the synthesis of these organic molecules in the lab. These processes sometimes use toxic and harsh chemicals that can produce harmful waste. Researchers like John Milligan, PhD, assistant professor in Chemical and Biological Sciences at Jefferson’s College of Life Sciences, are developing new ways to produce organic molecules. Read on to find out more about Professor Milligan’s research story and the questions he’s trying to answer.

Q: What first sparked your interest in your area of research?

A: I became interested in the area during my postdoctoral studies at Penn. I think it is very cool that blue LED light can activate innocuous catalysts to carry out reactions that used to require harsh or toxic chemical reagents.

Q: What is your research focus?

A: I am starting a research program that involves using blue LED light to make organic molecules. I am also interested in exploring applications of 3D printing in organic chemistry.

Dr. Milligan uses blue light
Dr. Milligan's research in action!

Q: What could these organic molecules be used for?

A: The goal is to use this approach to synthesize certain types of indole alkaloids, which are a family of molecules that can treat ailments ranging from cancer to neurological diseases.

Q: What’s one question you’re investigating?

A: One of the first questions we are trying to answer is whether copper salts can be used with the blue light to make amides, which are the groups that make the backbone of peptides and proteins.

Q: What is special about copper salts that they can be used in this process?

A: Copper can share its electrons with organic molecules to do interesting reactions, and since copper is abundant and non-toxic, this could be a very environmentally friendly way to make these molecules.

Q: What’s a cool fact about your study subject?

A: The reactions that we typically run are pretty easy to do. You just have to add all the ingredients in a vial, seal it up under a nitrogen atmosphere, and then let the light shine on it!

Q: How long does it take for the blue light to do its thing?

 A: Usually a few hours

Q: Many researchers have superstitions. Things they’ve done to cosmically help their experiments succeed. What are yours?

A: I’m not really a superstitious person, but I do have a lot of habits in the lab. For example, in my lab coat pockets, I always keep things like markers to make notes on glass (permanent marker isn’t so permanent when you have solvents in the lab!) and tweezers to grab the small objects we sometimes use in setting up reactions.

Q: What’s the best part of your job?

A: I really enjoy teaching students about the organic molecules that make up our bodies and other living things.

Q: What’s something people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I’ve spent my life bouncing around the corners of Pennsylvania: I grew up in the southwest corner of the state (Washington), did my undergraduate studies in the northwest (Meadville), went back to Pittsburgh for my graduate studies, then ultimately landed in Philadelphia. The city has become home for me, but in a hockey match between the Flyers and Penguins my loyalty still lies with the Penguins!

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